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John Petro

Investing in the Future of Our Cities


I was surprised to see this recommendation about New York City’s Second Avenue Subway coming from an author for Next American City:

“With city congestion growing as revenues slow, ditching the Second Avenue line now before we get too invested would be the smartest thing we could do. Instead of $1 billion per mile, new streetcar lines cost around $35-45 million – about 4% of the price. The mind boggles at the possibilities.”

This isn't the first time I've read this viewpoint. The New York Times had an article by Jim Dwyer who also questioned whether the line was worth the pricetag.

This is not the type of forward-looking thinking that is going to prepare New York City for the 21st century. On the face of it, $1 billion per mile is a lot of money (though, what is "a lot of money" in this era of $700 billion bank bailouts?). But let’s take a second and look at what we’re getting with our money. Once completed the Second Avenue Subway is projected to carry 578,000 riders a day. Let's put that number into perspective. That’s roughly the equivalent of transporting the entire population of Las Vegas every day. Compare the projected ridership of the Second Avenue Subway with the number of car trips that go across all the Hudson River crossings (G.W. Bridge, Holland, and Lincoln Tunnels). About 510,000 cars go across those crossings in an average day, with most cars carrying only one person. Now that we’ve built these bridges and tunnels, no one can imagine New York City without them.

I agree that New York City will have to look at light rail and streetcars as a transportation alternative in the future, but as an addition to our heavy rail system, not as a replacement. Light rail would be perfect for a crosstown line on 42nd Street in Midtown or as a solution for transportation between the outer boroughs.

The argument against the Second Avenue Subway is boiled down to this: it's too hard. Why the complacency?

The main point is this: in the next fifty years, New York City and every other city in the U.S. will need to take bold steps to address the challenges that we are faced with. Most of these challenges are interconnected: transportation, land use, energy use, environmental impacts, traffic congestion, housing costs, and job access. This is not the time to shrink from these challenges and to meet them with half-measures. If we do not take the steps necessary to invest in the future sustainability of our cities, our children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren will be paying the price.

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Posted at 11:11 AM, Jan 21, 2009 in Urban Affairs
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